In the 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed that one day people “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” much has changed. People are no longer being sprayed with fire hoses, or attacked by police dogs for expressing their political beliefs in America. People are no longer jailed because the color of their skin does not comport with the place they sit on a bus. Practices that deny citizens the ability to legally participate in the electoral process are outlawed, with black voter participation exceeding white participation in some of the same southern states where Jim Crow once ruled the land.
On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, President Barack Obama delivered a speech Wednesday to commemorate King’s famous words. “To dismiss the magnitude of this progress -- to suggest, as some sometimes do, that little has changed -- that dishonors the courage and the sacrifice of those who paid the price to march in those years,” Obama said. He also added, as have so many across the nation, that the work is not complete.
What is this work that we have yet to complete? In his speech, Obama alluded to gaps in economic success, particularly in the black community. It should be said that one of the grievances of the original March on Washington was, in fact, poverty. In 1966, 42% of African Americans lived in poverty. That was down to 28% in 2011. Since the 1963, the median black family income has risen 80% adjusted for inflation. Here too, much progress had been made, even if the work of bettering one’s life can never truly be completed. Economic success is a goal that all people will always have, and all will individually and collectively strive for. However, this focus on material gains may miss a much more essential point.
Perhaps the most important thing we can remember about civil rights is that they belong to all people. They are inclusive, not some special exclusive privilege afforded one group or another. Simply by being human, a person is endowed with their inalienable rights. Maybe that was a part of what those brave men and women were marching for: the right to be considered human in the eyes of the government. To deny a right is not to revoke a privilege of citizenship. It is to deny a person their humanity.
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